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September 16, 2020 9:00 am

How Trump’s Balkan Deal Might Harm Israel

avatar by Arthur Koll

Opinion

US President Donald Trump wears a mask while visiting Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, July 11, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Tasos Katopodis.

Kosovo and Serbia have a bloody and troubled history. As they attempt to reduce tensions and to create new economic agreements between them, Israel has been bizarrely dragged into this delicate Balkan mix.

Since its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, Kosovo, which has an Albanian ethnic majority, has been recognized by the US and most EU states, but not by the United Nations. Russia and China would veto any such recognition by the UN Security Council. Thus, Kosovo has yet to be admitted to the UN as a full-fledged member, despite the fact that over 100 states already recognize its independence.

Even in the EU, some have refrained from recognizing Kosovo for the simple reason that they themselves have separatist movements that could be encouraged to unilaterally declare their own independence, following the Kosovo precedent.

Examples of such states include Spain, which contends with a Catalonian independence movement, and Cyprus, which has a separatist northern Turkish entity that is recognized only by Turkey. Slovakia and Romania also have their own minorities that could be encouraged by the Kosovo precedent, leading them to avoid granting recognition.

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Historically, Albanians and Jews have enjoyed positive relations, including Albanian assistance to Jews fleeing the Nazi death machine during the Second World War.

In 1999, during the war in Kosovo, Israel sent significant aid to the refugees fleeing the war zone. We established field hospitals in neighboring Balkan states and accepted some of those fleeing Kosovo into Israel.

Since becoming independent, Kosovo has applied a fair degree of pressure on Israel to officially recognize it, due to the significance that it attaches to Israel’s international status.

From the outset, Israel informed Kosovo that while it has nothing against the Kosovan people, Israel must take its own interests into account. Israeli recognition of Kosovan independence would impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kosovo declared independence not through a negotiated agreement with Serbia, but unilaterally. That reality is too close to home for Israel given that the Palestinians are also seeking to achieve recognition from the international community on a unilateral basis, bypassing direct talks with Israel and any negotiated agreement.

Israel’s options for granting recognition of Kosovo were therefore based on one of two developments coming to pass: either Kosovo and Serbia reach an agreement, or Israel and the Palestinians do.

Recognizing Kosovo before one of those two things took place could serve as a predicate for a Palestinian initiative to demand recognition from the UN for a unilaterally declared Palestinian state in the West Bank, with Jerusalem as its capital.

Furthermore, the Palestinians would be reluctant to return to the negotiating table, believing instead that more could be gained by turning to the UN and the international community.

Once explained to leaders in Kosovo, these concerns were greeted with some understanding. Efforts to change Israel’s position continued, however.

The biggest lever Kosovo had at its disposal to dislodge the Israeli policy was the US, but even that was insufficient to get Jerusalem to change its diplomatic principle.

All of that suddenly changed on September 4, 2020, when US-brokered economic agreements between Serbia and Kosovo were signed in Washington, DC by President Donald Trump; Aleksandar Vucic, the president of Serbia; and Avdullah Hoti, the prime minister of Kosovo. Those agreements are aimed at regulating the interaction between the large Serbian minority living in northern Kosovo and Serbia. The scope of those agreements includes the handling of interests, assets, and the movement of goods and people between Belgrade and Pristina.

Oddly, and in a manner that is out of place, one of the clauses of this economic agreement between the two Balkan rivals is that Israel recognizes Kosovo, and that both Kosovo and Serbia establish embassies in Israel’s capital of Jerusalem.

This diplomatic turn of events should be viewed with deep suspicion, for several reasons.

Serbia, for its part, interprets an Israeli recognition of Kosovo as a significant diplomatic blow. It is therefore less than likely to reward such a development by moving its embassy to Jerusalem. Indeed, in recent days, Serbia has more than hinted that it will not move its embassy if Israel recognizes Kosovo. The chances of a Serbian embassy in Jerusalem by summer 2021, as the agreement calls for, look slim at best.

On the subject of Kosovo, Israel is departing from a long standing foreign-policy principle in return for a vague promise of a Kosovan embassy in Jerusalem. An EU statement further added to the skepticism. It warned both Serbia and Kosovo that moving their embassies to Jerusalem would undermine the Union’s collective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and would harm the prospects of both countries being accepted into the EU — a key objective of both Belgrade and Pristina.

As such, Israel appears to have been dragged into a Balkan conflict against its own interests, and regardless of the manner in which this strange situation ends, Israel does not stand to benefit.

Israel must now move swiftly to ensure that its ties with Serbia, which have been excellent to this point, are not harmed as a consequence of this process.

Ultimately, one has to ask why Israel was ready to surrender a key policy principle in such an awkward and clumsy manner.

The likely explanation is that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is returning a political favor to Donald Trump.

Just as the American president has made multiple gestures of support to Netanyahu in the buildup to successive Israeli elections, including moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, so has Netanyahu agreed to help Trump’s campaign, it appears.

Trump boasted of a foreign policy “success” and has scored points with his base through the announced agreement. As for whether either Serbia or Kosovo will move their embassies to Jerusalem — to say the least, that remains to be seen.

In the meantime, a key Israeli policy interest may well have been sacrificed.

Arthur Koll is a former Ambassador of the State of Israel to Serbia-Montenegro and a publishing expert  at the MirYam Institute.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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